How to professionalize the team at a news startup

نوشته Aldana Vales
Jun 21, 2021 در Media Sustainability
Screen shot of a virtual meeting of the Ponte Jornalismo team

When Brazilian media outlet Ponte Jornalismo launched, the team behind it was thinking exclusively about journalism. As Fausto Salvadori, one of the organization’s co-founders said, the endeavor started with the idea of using communication as a “tool to fight for human rights."

Before joining the Velocidad media accelerator program in early 2020, Ponte Jornalismo had already begun to evolve. The team realized that their media outlet had the potential to support a business model, but in terms of internal operations, the team needed to change in new ways that would allow the organization to grow.

During the first six months of the Velocidad accelerator, as an organization Ponte Jornalismo went from having an informal company structure to becoming a media outlet with well-defined team roles and responsibilities. By closely examining Ponte Jornalismo, other media outlets can understand how digital media companies can professionalize their teams, optimize their operations and internally restructure an organization to allow for future expansion and growth. 

The Plan

When Ponte Jornalismo started as a journalism project, the organization did not have a business model. Reporters volunteered their time, and the organization relied exclusively on the activism and passion of its contributors. 

"The reporting for Ponte [Jornalismo] was entirely supported by the team’s commitment to the project. Team members had to work other jobs to supplement the income generated by Ponte Jornalismo. At the beginning, it was a small outlet with a horizontally-structured decision-making process, where everyone on the team did a little of everything,” said Javier Borelli, the strategic consultant who worked with the Ponte Jornalismo team during the first stage of the Velocidad program (March - September 2020).

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As Ponte Jornalismo grew, the company did generate some revenue, enough to sustain itself as a small organization. This income came from grants, donation drives and selling the site’s content. “We spent all of our time thinking about managing our journalism projects. We only thought about the articles we were going to produce, which are the heart and essence of Ponte Jornalismo,” Salvadori said. 

When Ponte Jornalismo was selected as a grantee for Velocidad, the team decided to establish several goals, the first being to increase revenue in order to increase staff salaries, allowing team members to  dedicate more time to Ponte Jornalismo. They also decided to make it an objective to add full-time staff to the team and expand the site’s coverage. 

As an additional priority in the first phase of the Velocidad accelerator, the Ponte Jornalismo team decided to focus on reorganizing the organization’s internal structure, for both business and editorial operations. This goal of restructuring has carried over as a focus for Ponte Jornalismo during the second phase of the Velocidad accelerator program in 2021, as well. 

The Ponte Jornalismo team continues to prioritize this organizational restructuring because they understand it is fundamental to ensure the organization’s essential tasks are accomplished. What’s more, having a deliberate, planned structure for both the business and news teams will help the team be more efficient as Ponte Jornalismo grows and evolves.  

With an action plan defined, Ponte Jornalismo began receiving tactical consulting support from Velocidad. To analyze their organization’s management and overall structure, the Ponte Jornalismo team wrote down all of their team members’ roles and tasks. With this exercise, they realized that almost all the responsibility for the media outlet was in the hands of just three people.

“We didn’t think about the structure of Ponte Jornalismo. For us, the newsroom was the main focus. We didn’t think our organization needed other departments, such as administration or marketing,” said Antonio Juniao, one of Ponte Jornalismo’s co-founders.

But even the newsroom itself needed to have a clearer structure with more defined processes. “Reviewing an article someone on our team had written, we would look at each other and ask, ‘Who asked for this story? Who approved it?’ And we didn’t know,” Salvadori said. 

To solve this type of organizational confusion and address other questions, the Ponte Jornalismo team put together an organizational chart as well as a map of the team’s workflow. These exercises helped them understand the processes it was using in different areas of the organization, even in the newsroom. With this analysis, Ponte Jornalismo was able to articulate every step of the process an article goes through, from approval of the initial pitch to publication. Defining this process helped reduce the entire team’s stress, as the whole production process was organized, with deadlines and the people involved in story production clearly defined.

“We didn’t think about the structure of Ponte Jornalismo. For us, the newsroom was the main focus. We didn’t think our organization needed other departments, such as administration or marketing,” said Antonio Juniao, one of Ponte Jornalismo’s co-founders.

“Developing an organizational chart helped the team understand who reports to which manager, and for what tasks. We have also created job titles that make sense both within the organization and externally. This organizational analysis also helped everyone see what parts of tasks overlap with one another, and if there is time wasted or bottlenecks in the process. Understanding these key areas helped the whole team’s productivity increase,” said Mariel Graupen, a tactical consultant who specializes in team and organizational management. She worked with the Ponte Jornalismo team throughout this phase of their organizational restructuring. 

“It became clear to us that we didn’t have anyone responsible for Ponte Jornalismo’s social media,” Salvadori said. According to him, the outlet did not have a “true social media presence.” Now, the media site has a communications plan designed specifically for social media, as well as a person who produces social media content and analyzes audience metrics for potential impacts.  

To arrive at this point with their social media strategy, Ponte Jornalismo first had to hire an audience editor. However, when they went to hire for this role, the team realized they didn’t have a defined hiring process either. “As we were a group of unpaid volunteers, the people who contributed the most work were the first ones to be hired on as the first paid staff,” said María Elisa Muntaner, who is in charge of the organization’s administrative team.

Drawing on what they learned from working with Velocidad’s consultants, the Ponte Jornalismo team outlined the skills needed for each role within the organization. As a team, they also created an agenda of organizational priorities and defined the different positions within the company. 

Challenges and Lessons Learned 

When a news organization needs to grow, it must do so strategically. When the Ponte Jornalismo team contemplated expanding, the group’s initial reaction was to simply “hire more journalists,” co-founder Salvadori said. In the organization’s infancy, that is exactly how the outlet allocated its revenue, to hire more journalists. Since then, the team has come to understand that reporting is just the beginning of the process. After writing an article comes story distribution. The step that comes next, measuring the impact of one’s reporting, is especially important for nonprofits such as Ponte Jornalismo. 

The Ponte Jornalismo team came to understand that reporting alone is not enough to make an independent news outlet sustainable. To strengthen the organization’s sustainability, the team learned to define roles, tasks and processes within the organization. Going through this process was key to helping the team learn that day-to-day operations positions are different from strategic roles. For example, it was not easy for the team to find the right person to be in charge of managing the organization’s audience work. Once someone was hired to work on the organization’s social media, Ponte Jornalismo’s performance on social media became noticeably stronger, with the outlet’s reach on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram expanding.

However, the team came to understand that social media analytics and metrics were not the strongest skills for the person initially hired to work on the organization’s social media. “She was not an ‘audience editor,’ she was really a social media editor,” said Salvador. After that, the Ponte Jornalismo team realized that this employee’s greatest strength was her ability to talk to outlet’s audience, which made her the perfect candidate to work as an engagement editor. After an intense hiring process, the Ponte Jornalismo team hired the right person to work as the audience editor. This person plans, produces and publishes social media content with the help of an intern, which was another new role created during the Velocidad accelerator. This new hire and intern also analyze the audience metrics on the Ponte Jornalismo website and social media. 

The Ponte Jornalismo team came to understand that reporting alone is not enough to make an independent news outlet sustainable. To strengthen the organization’s sustainability, the team learned to define roles, tasks and processes within the organization. 

By defining and prioritizing roles within the organization, Ponte Jornalismo now only makes a hire once the team knows exactly what tasks the new hire will perform, who that hire’s points of contact will be within the organization and who on staff that person will work with. “The other key component is to not only think about hiring a specific person. It is very easy to think, 'Oh, I know this person, or I know that person.' Instead, you have to first think about what Ponte Jornalismo needs most,” Muntaner said.

Knowing what is best for the organization also requires knowing the skillsets of everyone on staff and the time each person has available. At Ponte Jornalismo, everyone on the team has different areas of expertise that complement one another. For example, Muntaner is not a reporter and works on the administrative side. Salvadori, on the other hand, is a journalist and has extensive experience as a writer and their colleague Junião is skilled in design and technology. 

They always divide tasks based on the areas of expertise of the team members involved. While this approach to teamwork was built into the organization’s workflow prior to the Velocidad accelerator, the new challenge for Ponte Jornalismo is to capitalize on the roles and skill sets they have identified during the Velocidad program. “One person can’t be involved in everything, so we assign ourselves tasks according to our expertise and availability,” Muntaner said.

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What's Next

For Ponte Jornalismo, this restructuring process has been key to laying the foundations for the organization’s future growth. The team understood that they needed to articulate specific roles for each team member, as well as define the tasks required for each of those roles. But the professionalization of a news team and media outlet doesn’t end there; in difficult circumstances such as the current pandemic, it also requires evaluating staff routines and preserving the well-being of the team.

In order to cultivate staff well-being, Ponte Jornalismo is also analyzing how to best give team members more down time. They are exploring opportunities to work with a consultant to identify points of stress and conflict for the team, among other initiatives. Organizing your media organization’s team and work processes not only allows your staff to work better and be more productive, it also supports your organization’s sustainability efforts. This is one of the tasks that Ponte is now working on during the second stage of the Velocidad accelerator.

Velocidad is a business media accelerator implemented by the International Center for Journalists and SembraMedia with support from Luminate Group.

Photo courtesy of Ponte.